What do you think of when you hear the word ‘gold’?
Perhaps your mind flies to sporting endeavours, to medals and victory. Maybe, you’re more inclined to picture a fine diamond bracelet, or a huge pair of hoop earrings. Either way, likely the last thing to cross your mind would be mercury or cyanide poisoning.
And yet, this is the reality faced by thousands of miners in developing nations, charged with putting their health at risk daily in order to feed the west’s magpie tendencies.
“Exploitation in mining is a massive problem,” sighs Daniela Colaiacovo, the Italian-born, London-based founder of ethical luxury jewellery brand Makal. “Illegal mining is a huge issue, as is child labour.”
Until two years ago, Colaiacovo was something of an outlier, heading up a Central American gold mine that supplied Cartier, among others. While the industry is very much still male-dominated, she says the labour-intensive initial stages of mining are often carried out by women – women who all too often find themselves exposed to major risks in the form of dangerous chemicals.
“Ours was the first ethical gold mind of its kind in Central America. And when I started to work, in early 2000, we were literally just hearing about sustainability, especially in the luxury jewellery industry. I found myself involved in developing a very innovative business model where we didn’t use any chemicals like cyanide or mercury in the extraction process. Our mine was a closed loop, using recycled water and no chemicals to protect both the environment and our workforce. And just one third of our work was actually in the production of the metal – we did a huge amount of work to engage with local artists and the local miners that, when we got into our mine, were mostly working illegally.
“One of the first things we did was help them to become legalised, and then we helped them to form independent cooperatives. Then they became effectively, in the course of our 15 years there, our business partners.”
Going for gold
This approach, Colaiacovo says, is something that is only now gaining real traction in the industry, with a host of luxury brands now paying far closer attention to their sourcing practices.
“A lot has changed recently,” she smiles. “The industry is moving, because the customers and the consumer are now much more inquisitive than they were before. They are pushing the industry to do better and better and better, trying to ask the right questions.”
One of those questions, she says, is exactly who has created a piece from beginning to end, and what standards they’ve been working in. “When you look at the gold mining industry, usually you’re not dealing with extremely rich countries. Across Africa and Central America, women miners are often the breadwinners, driving the wealth of the family. They’re extremely eager to learn, very receptive to training to help them create their own legal enterprises, and they’re becoming a very strong force within the industry.
“So, for me, it was extremely rewarding to see these women become independent and when the mine closed, one of my strongest commitments was to continue to work with women in the mining industry.”
The result is Makal, a fine jewellery brand that creates made-to-order pieces that are not just sustainably and ethically produced, but fully traceable. Unusually, the brand also focuses on the use of raw materials – gold nuggets rather than refined gold – as well as traditional gold and diamonds.
For Colaiacovo, years of selling raw gold to brands who would melt it down to make jewellery rankled. “Gold nuggets are the most organic and natural form of gold – the essence, untouched, preserved in its natural and rough form. Usually, they’re melted down because few see the opportunity of creating anything. I just knew that I didn’t want to melt it down, but rather to preserve its beauty.
“In creating Makal, the idea was to give life to this beautiful piece of raw material, and to educate consumers at the same time. Some people in the industry thought it was a crazy idea, and I have to say I hesitated a lot – but in life, you have to have a little bit of courage in what you do.”
While the focus of the brand is on sustainable sourcing – it has recently launched a project working with women miners in Kenya to reduce the need for mercury use in the extraction process – for Colaiacovo, producing a beautiful line is key to proving the viability of the ethos.
“The product is very individualistic, we do all made-to-order, so it’s almost like a bespoke piece of jewellery. Because I wanted to really build a truly ethical, sustainable brand, the concept of having stock wasn’t part of the plan – I didn’t want to create waste.
“This has had the additional advantage of creating a connection and engagement with my customers, and the story is very, very important. The whole experience is very personal, and so far, we’ve been very successful – on a small scale, because it’s a small brand.
“My ambition is to create a community of very individualistic and discerning customers that, when they wear a Makal piece of jewellery, know that they can make a positive impact because they know where it comes from, and the amount of work I put into every piece.”
That the jewellery is expensive, Colaiacovo says, is not something she will apologise for. “I come across this is the debate all the time and I actually think that something that is ethically-made, ethically-sourced, has to be also assuredly expensive. If you buy anything that is been ethically mined, that has very strong standards and values behind it, you always have to pay a premium for that. Yes, that means you can buy less – but you buy quality.”
While not every consumer can afford her pieces, Colaiacovo is hopeful that as more ethos-led brands like hers emerge, the more the consumer mindset will begin to shift. “We need to start from somewhere. We want to have the magic wand to have all the answers, but I think that the intention of changing the industry is very, very important.
“It’s about helping people to understand how much it costs to maintain a clean supply chain. People are talking more about sustainability because it’s fashionable now, but what does it mean?
“Authenticity, on the other hand, isn’t a word that we use enough. We have to shift away from the idea of sustainability meaning better marketing and start to identify the brands that truly believe in what they’re doing. That’s how it will change.
“And it will change. I believe that strongly. It’s just a question of time.”
For more information on Makal and its work in promoting sustainability in jewellery, click here.